Monday, 3 January 2011

Learning Disabilities

Happy New Year, everyone.

I've been thinking for a while now about something that happened in school when I was about nine or ten.  One of my classmates was having some problems with his writing, and our teacher decided that he wasn't trying hard enough and a bit of public humiliation might sharpen him up.  So he stood him up and read out one of his essays to the class in a tone of biting sarcasm.  The rest of us squirmed in embarassment, torn between feeling sorry for him and being glad it wasn't us.  He may have cried, I can't remember that detail.  Nor can I remember the actual content of the essay but I clearly remember the problem.  It went something like this.

"I walked down the street and there I was a red car.  I saw very excited to see it."

You will imediately understand what was going on.  My classmate had dyslexia.  He mixed up his was and saw because he couldn't tell the difference.  It wouldn't matter how hard he tried, and how much humiliation he suffered, he would continue to mix them up until someone who understood his disorder helped him develop a strategy for recognising when he had gone wrong.  Although not all teachers of 40 years ago shared this man's love for humiliating students, very few of them understood these kinds of learning disorders and what to do about them.

I've been thinking about this because now it seems to be the opposite.  Every time I talk to friends or family with school age children we seem to be talking about learning disabilities.  Various young friends and family members have dyslexia, dyspraxia, various forms of ASD, ADHD, auditory processing disabilities and so on.  One of the favourite games is to work out which disabilities were inherited from the parents.  It's amazing realise how many of the people I've spent my life around suffer from learning disabilities.

To some extent, there is more help available now to young people with these disabilities.  Not enough, but at least teachers now understand what is going on, and there are guidance officers, OTs, learning support teachers, options to adapt exam conditions, and so on.  Most of those I know are doing well, succeeding at school or university, making friends and living happy lives.

I don't know what became of my dyslexic classmate, but the heartening thing is that most of the people of my generation got through OK as well.  Despite the complete ignorance of our teachers, the mature sufferers from these disabilities are now engineers, accountants, statisticians, school teachers and so forth, as well as loving supportive parents.  Often they took a bit longer to get there, with some false starts along the way, but they made it in the end.

It all makes me wonder.  Of course the various conditions are real, and the support and allowances made for them are necessary and appropriate.  But the fact that they are so pervasive, and that people suffering from them almost always overcome them, says to me that they are not "disorders" or "deficiencies".  The people who have them don't fall short of some imagined ideal of human perfection.  They are simply differences.  We all have things that come easily to us and things we find difficult.  This is what it means to be human.  We don't need to search for a cure, because there is no cure for being human.  Instead, we need to go on learning to love and respect one another as we are, to help each other with our respective difficulties and rejoice in each other's talents and acheivements.

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